Why can’t I connect to Wi-fi? Free public network across Hong Kong slow and underused, government auditor finds

Watchdog slams administration for falling short of ‘smart’ city ambitions and not doing enough to promote digital inclusion in community

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 6:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 10:44pm

Free public Wi-fi in Hong Kong – the most basic of technological amenities – is still slow, patchy and mostly underused, despite the push to become a “smart” city, according to the government auditor.

On Wednesday, the Audit Commission said more than a third of public Wi-fi hotspots across government venues in the city had bandwidths slower than 3 megabits per second (Mbps). At some locations, no internet connection could be established at all.

At 196 venues – 32 per cent of the total – the average number of users was less than 15 per day.

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In his 2016 policy address, then chief executive Leung Chun-ying pledged to progressively double the speed of the public GovWiFi connection to 3 or 4 Mbps per user.

The recommended speed for streaming a high-definition YouTube video on a computer or mobile device is about 5 to 7 Mbps. According to a 2017 report by Akamai, an American content delivery network services provider, Hong Kong ranked fourth fastest in the world with an average Wi-fi speed of 21.9 Mbps.

“[The office] needs to take measures to boost the usage of GovWiFi services including promoting their availability and improving such services,” the auditor said.

[The office] needs to take measures to boost the usage of GovWiFi services including promoting their availability and improving such services
Audit Commission

There are currently 3,087 GovWiFi hotspots at government venues across the city, according to the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, which is in charge of developing and maintaining the network.

But based on data from the office’s 2017 annual service inspections, the Audit Commission found that download speeds at 1,171 GovWiFi hotspots, or 38 per cent, were below 3 Mbps.

At least 30 of these hotspots were public libraries and parks, which are popular tourist spots with relatively high Wi-fi usage, the watchdog stressed. In at least 10 hotspots, Wi-fi connection could not be established at all.

The auditor noted that even at venues with proper Wi-fi connection, average usage was still low because of poor signage indicating GovWiFi availability.

Since 2014, authorities have also been promoting the usage of Wi-Fi.HK, which is available at non-government venues. The move aims to expand coverage by collaborating with industries in the private sector. But progress on this has likewise been slow.

While the government pledged in 2016 to progressively expand the number of WiFi.HK hotspots from 17,000 to 34,000 by 2019, as of December 2017 the figure had gone up by just 3,339 to 20,339, the auditor noted.

The report also slammed the government for the prolonged delay in the sale of two high-tier data centre sites in Tseung Kwan O and took it to task for not doing enough to promote digital inclusion and the further use of IT in the community.

What’s holding Hong Kong back from becoming a smarter city?

The auditor provided over 20 recommendations to Secretary for Innovation and Technology Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung and the chief information officer, and urged them to update their strategies, while taking into account the government’s 2017 Smart City Blueprint.

Both agreed with the audit recommendations.

Many places overseas no longer emphasise citywide Wi-fi, as it is just not feasible
Francis Fong, Hong Kong Information Technology Federation

Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, said it was very difficult to achieve citywide public Wi-fi connectivity, especially in large, open, outdoor areas where multiple Wi-fi frequencies could jam each other. Connections were often better in closed spaces such as libraries.

“Many places overseas no longer emphasise citywide Wi-fi, as it is just not feasible,” Fong said. “Wi-fi cannot be used as an infrastructure. It is now mainly used to support mobile data networks such as 3G or 4G ... which are also getting [cheaper].”

Fong added that most people would prefer using the mobile data on their smartphones rather than tapping into the Wi-fi connection at public places.

He also said he believed Wifi.HK was not successful because there was just “no business model” for its partners to take advantage of.

Fong said the government had “dug a hole for itself” in setting the ambitious Wi-fi targets and was now obliged to meet them.